We are all aware that the Roman empire was the seat of development of Christianity. It provided the fertile humus on which a broad number of religions were born and developed. When Rome was a “pagan” embryo there was a strong link between the early roman kings/rulers and the divinities. Political decisions were often heavily influenced by some form of divination and magic, such as interpretation of the sibylline books, the patterns and colours of guts of sacrificed animals or the flight of birds in the skies. The Roman kings themselves often closely related themselves to the divinities, for example the second king of Rome Numa Pompilius was in close contact (married) with a nymph called Egeria, also closely associated with the goddess Diana. It is therefore easy to see how the king’s decisions might be taken for divine orders.
As the empire progressed and the number of divinities grew, Rome became a rich republic and later an empire ruled over by a single despot, so society changed as did social conditions. Successive emperors found the need to realign themselves to the concept of divinity in order to take an increasingly strong command over and increasingly complex empire (consider the large geographical expanse, broad range of cultures etc). Ie a form of rule ever closer to that of their oriental counterparts who were similarly despotic.
An amusing yet telling anecdote of such a trend were emperor Vespasian’s last dying words: “Cripes! I believe I’m about to become a god” (vae, puto dues fio). The time of Emperor Nero and his repression of the early Christians had already passed and more such repressions were due to come under various emperors. Even after emperor Constantine had given Christianity the seal of approval they were to suffer yet more repression by later emperors. Note that once they took power, the Christians gave as good as they got by destroying everything, good or bad, merely because it was associated with Paganism. The recent film “Agora” gives a good sense of what the times might have been like.
The issue was that Christianity and other monotheistic religions did not permit belief in any other deity than their own God. We can see how Roman Christians would have been considered as traitors, given that they, unlike their pagan counterparts, would refuse to pay tribute to the emperor’s “genius” and follow ancient Roman tradition. How could they ever participate in traditional processions to the Capitoline triad? Or march behind the standards of Jupiter’s eagle?
Not surprisingly the pagans would blame the gradual fall of the empire on the Christians and the break they were causing in traditional roman society; whilst the Christians blamed it on the pagan’s ungodly behavior and loose ancient Roman morality. Either way, we can say there was a clear break in the social-religious-military-political fabric and the shift towards Christianity was a highly significant element in such a change.
During the 4th-5th century AD the Christians slowly came out of the woodwork of Roman society and by the 6th century they had spun a subtle web to change Rome and Roman society from within; corrupting and changing its former fabric of unity and fashioning it towards a new set of values. As all Darwinists will know, there is no mutation in an organism without something of it having to be sacrificed.
Emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius freed all Christian slaves, great investments were made in Christian cult and the older pagan symbols were gradually demolished. The effects of this shift were not immediately negative nor were they immediately felt. Rome benefited from increased influx of pilgrims; the investment on cult edifices provided work and if the English industrial revolution is anything to go by, we could even deduce that the liberation of slaves may have created a fresh mass of consumers to help drive the economy.
So please note that I am not saying that Christianity was per se the cause of the negative change: the shift to Christianity may well be regarded to have been a social effect driven onto people who had lost all worldly hope of breaking away from their poverty and misery and therefore had nowhere better to look than to the heavens. A material reflection of this may be seen in Roman architecture: the great Roman basilicas became a site for Christian unity and the Roman triumphal arch would be placed within it, before the altar.
Taken in this sense we can see some resonance with the thought of many Roman writers since the first century, who denounced the way Roman society had given up the healthy, stern morals of the early republic and kingdom. Romans had lost their early nature in favor of that epitomized by Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon and denounced like they did the Roman matrons who attended Marc Anthony’s feasts whose behaviour made them hardly discernible from freed women and prostitutes.
Emperor Constantine, probably all but a devout Christian, turned Christian faith to advantage for a while but in order to do so we should also note that he abandoned “old Rome” in favour of a “new Rome” at Constantinople (Istanbul). There is plenty of extant evidence regarding the internal strife between pagans and Christians: not a situation conducive to a nation united in its efforts to resolve the many ailments it faced and most certainly nowhere near the (religious) single minded conviction of early Romans at the time of Romulus who fought in the absolute belief that Jupiter Optimus Maximus was with them. Times when soldiers would have given their lives rather than lose their military insignia for fear of divine reprisals (Jupiter’s eagles).
A final consideration: It is interesting to consider the early development of Christianity into the middle ages to gain an idea of what the church in Rome must have been like. The progressive path towards the schism between the western Catholic Christians headed by Rome and the Eastern Orthodox church based in Constantinople (actually spread across 3 or 4 patriarchates/cities) suggests a tendency for the eastern church towards complex theological debate – very much in keeping with Greek culture – whilst the church of Rome was very much more focused on what the Romans did best: Administration. It is a simplistic yet interesting conclusion to suggest that Roman (military) voracity was reborn and transformed into Roman Catholicism and its drive for religious and earthly supremacy, in the name of God of course. This transition was matched in action and thought: The concern with the legality of war and indeed the divine support for a just war had been a fundamental element of Romanity since the earliest times. Cicero was amongst the first to consider the legal and philosophical implications of “Just War” (“Bellum iustum“), Saint Augustine embedded it within Christian doctrine.
These aspects of the fall of the Roman empire will be given some further consideration in the following sections:
link to: society after the fall of the roman empire